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Chickadee (Birchbark House) Paperback – August 27, 2013
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From School Library Journal
Gr 4-8-Effortlessly and beautifully, Erdrich continues her story about an Ojibwe family in northern Minnesota in the mid 1800s. The series began with Omakayas's girlhood and now shifts to the lives of her sons. In 1866, quiet Chickadee and mischievous Makoons are inseparable eight-year-old twins, cherished by their extended family. When they gather with other Ojibwe to make maple sugar, a cruel older man mocks Chickadee for his small size and namesake. Makoons defends his brother's honor by playing a revengeful prank on the man, which humiliates and incenses him. His thick-headed, muscle-bound sons vow revenge and kidnap Chickadee, carrying him away and forcing him to serve their bewildering oafish demands. His family is heartbroken and pursues the captors while Makoons becomes listless and ill. Chickadee eventually escapes, in time reuniting with a traveling uncle, who leads the way back to his family. Through many harrowing adventures, the child is aided and encouraged by his avian namesake, who teaches him that small things have great power. Erdrich's storytelling is masterful. All of the characters, even minor ones, are believable and well developed, and small pencil drawings add to the story's charm. The northern Minnesota setting is vividly described, and information about Ojibwe life and culture is seamlessly woven into every page. Readers will be more than happy to welcome little Chickadee into their hearts.-Lisa Crandall, Capital Area District Library, Holt, MIα(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
★ “A beautifully evolving story of an indigenous American family. ” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
★ “Erdrich’s storytelling is masterful. Readers will be more than happy to welcome little Chickadee into their hearts.” (School Library Journal (starred review))
“Readers will absorb the history lesson almost by osmosis; their full attention will be riveted on the story. Every detail anticipates readers’ interest.” (The Horn Book)
“In the fourth book in Erdrich’s award-winning Birchbark House series, the focus moves to a new generation. As always, the focus is on the way-of-life details as much as the adventure. Most affecting are the descriptions of Makoons’ loneliness without his brother.” (ALA Booklist)
“Set around the same time period as the ever-popular Little House books, the Birchbark House series has become a classic narrative in its own right. Delightful.” (Brightly)
“The pleasures of reading the series are not unlike those of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder: Discovering an earlier time in our country through stories of the daily lives of children.” (Newsday.com)
GLOWING PRAISE FOR THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE SERIES: “Based on Erdrich’s own family history, the mischievous celebration will move readers, and so will the anger and sadness. What is left unspoken is as powerful as the story told.” (Booklist (starred review))
“[A] lyrical narrative. Readers will want to follow this family for many seasons to come.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“Readers who loved Omakayas and her family in The Birchbark House (1999) have ample reason to rejoice in this beautifully contstructed sequel … Hard not to hope for what comes next for this radiant nine-year old.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
★ “Erdrich’s charming pencil drawings interspersed throughout and her glossary of Ojibwe terms round out a beautiful offering.” (School Library Journal (starred review))
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The Birchbark House novels take place in the mid-19th century in Wisconsin and Minnesota; they've been positioned as alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, but with a Native American focus. In CHICKADEE, just like the Ingalls family, Omakayas' family is on the move again, from the Lake of the Woods to the unfamiliar landscape of the Great Plains.
Chickadee is taking a journey separate from his family, and through no desire of his own. After the mischievous boy and his twin, Makoons, pay a trick on a mean old man, the man's sons take revenge by kidnapping Chickadee and turning him into their servant. The boy must take care of the boorish brothers' horses and also cook for them, a disgusting stew made partly of dead mice --- and of their droppings.
But the brothers don't bargain for Chickadee's family's persistence in finding him --- or in Chickadee's own desire for survival and freedom. After Chickadee escapes from the brothers, his adventures and dangers are hardly over, but he is guided by the spirit --- and even the voice --- of his namesake bird, the tiny bird that everyone underestimates.
The migratory nature of Erdrich's novel underscores one of the main cultural and historical differences between her characters and the white settlers they counterbalance. For the Ojibwe, an itinerant existence is not a choice but a necessity, dictated by unfair laws, white aggression, and the resulting pressures that escalate. Erdrich's characters are every bit as sympathetic as Wilder's, if not more so. Confronted with an encroaching snowstorm, the family builds the kind of birchbark shelter to which they're accustomed, only to have it whisked away by a gust of wind: "Such houses were for the woods," she reflects. "They were now people of the Great Plains. But they hadn't learned yet how to live there."
Similarly, when Chickadee (in a section that long-time readers will appreciate) reunites with his Uncle Quill, the two travel to St. Paul and view the mansions that have been immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. But Chickadee has a very different take on their wealth and luxury: "Chickadee could see that they used up forests of trees in making the houses. He could see that they had cut down every tree in sight.... Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied...until everything was gone."
Although CHICKADEE offers some important messages, both historical and relevant to today, it's important to mention that the book is also both genuinely suspenseful and extremely funny. Erdrich has a knack for spinning out anecdotes that will draw in readers, and both her sparkling words and the gentle pencil drawings that accompany them provide a rich, nuanced and extremely inviting portrait of Chickadee's world.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl